Deciphering Champagne

Alison Napjus
Issue: December 15, 2013

The key to reading a Champagne label is in understanding its three main components: non-vintage versus vintage; style; and dosage.

Non-vintage versus vintage is the Mason-Dixon line of Champagne. Non-vintage bottlings blend wines made from the harvest of two or more vintages, whereas vintage versions are produced from the fruit of only one year. Traditionally, non-vintage Champagne was the solution to the region's northerly climate, a way to blend away its typically uneven or lesser-quality vintages, and vintage Champagne was produced only in top vintages—usually two to four times each decade. Today, with climate change, vintage bottlings are possible from almost every harvest, though non-vintage Champagne still makes up about 70 percent of the U.S. market.

Style is the next part of the decision matrix. Most Champagne blends the region's three grapes: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and, typically in smaller amounts, Pinot Meunier. But some bottlings highlight a specific grape or grapes. Blanc de blancs (also labeled blanc de Chardonnay) is made entirely from Chardonnay. Conversely, blanc de noirs is made entirely from Pinot Noir and/or Pinot Meunier. Although only red grapes are used for blanc de noirs, it is still a "white" sparkling wine, because there is limited or no skin contact during production. Finally, many producers also make rosé Champagne, typically by using all three grapes to create a still white wine, then adding a small amount of still red wine prior to the secondary fermentation. This is done to obtain the color, which can range from pale salmon to cherry-berry pink.

Dosage is the last part of the equation in deciphering a Champagne label. In the final stage of Champagne production, producers can add a small amount of sweetened liquid, essentially sugary syrup, called the dosage, which balances the wine to the chef de cave's desired level. There are six categories of dosage, each defined by the number of grams per liter of residual sugar in the finished wine. Brut is far and away the most common category of Champagne, referring to wines that are dry in style; at the other end of the spectrum, doux Champagne is essentially unheard of today. Some of the categories are indicated using a variety of label terms, listed on the chart below, which also includes defining information for each category.

Category Residual sugar* Description Other common label terms
Brut Nature/ Extra Brut 0-6 Very dry; little Brut to no sugar added Non-Dosé, Brut Zéro,Brut de Brut
Brut 0-15 Dry N/A
Extra-Dry 12-20 Off-dry to rich Extra Sec
Dry 17-35 Lightly sweet Sec
Demi-sec 35-50 Medium sweet N/A
Doux 50+ Frankly sweet N/A

*grams per liter

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